Star Trek: The Next Generation was doomed to failure before the first episode ever premiered in 1987. After all, how could anyone could top the original iconic series, even if that someone trying was the creator of the original series, Gene Roddenberry? But this series would go on to last for seven years, outlasting the original series by four years. Part of this phenomenal success was due to public’s attraction to the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Picard has now become part of pop culture. Picard parodies prance about in numerous comedy shows, movies and You Tube videos. Picard inspired a popular non-fiction book on how to lead groups of any sizes. He was even the inspiration for the 2009 “facepalm” image fad on the Internet. Picard has entered the tapestry of fictional characters that are so beloved that they take on a life of their own.
Too Many Cooks Didn’t Spoil the Broth
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to Captain Picard’s character is that somehow it survived dozens of writers, directors and Gene Roddenberry over the years. Although, as British singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel commented, very few successful novels or record albums have been written by a committee, Picard’s character has. Instead of too many ingredients being added to make an unpalatable dish, Picard winds up being very dishy indeed.
This arguably is due to the Head Chef of the Captain Picard entrée, the actor who played him over 187 episodes, four movies and countless spoofs, Patrick Stewart. Stewart did not have an iron-clad idea as to what made Picard tick. He would often ask writers and directors to add or subtract some aspects or problems that would face Picard. It is more than fitting that in the final official chapter of Picard’s story, “Star Trek: Nemesis” (2002) Picard winds up facing one of the worst enemies he ever faced – a clone of himself.
Basic Components: Strengths
Captain Picard is a fully-fleshed three-dimensional character for three aspects – his strengths, his quirks and his outright failures.
Picard is disciplined, articulate, intelligent and brings out the best in his crew. He respects others and in return gains their respect or their fear. For example, when Ensign Ro believes she is a ghost in “The Next Phase”, she tells Picard, “You still intimidate me.” Although Picard never has children – nor does he feel comfortable with children – he does become the ultimate father figure for many crew members, most particularly the android Lt. Commander Data. Data’s actor, Brent Spiner, contains many physical similarities to actor Patrick Stewart, including their facial profiles.
Although it is doubtful whether this casting to make the two characters look similarly was intentional, throughout the series and in the movies, Captain Picard often treats Data like the favourite son. Picard shows in many episodes that he has no time for fools, such as the omnipotent Q, but Picard always made the time to explain even the most bizarre aspects of human behaviour to Data. This fatherly aspect may have transferred to the viewers, who, although human, probably also had the same questions Data did.
Perhaps Picard’s biggest strength was his core of selflessness. Although at times he seemed self-absorbed and could easily be annoyed, when anyone’s life was at stake, Picard would jump into action. He humiliated himself by reciting Shakespeare to help Lwaxana Troi in “Ménage a Troi” and even tried to save the life of the being he hated the most, Q, in “Deja Q.”
Basic Components: Quirks
Patrick Stewart had one big request for the writers – no bald jokes. Stewart began going bald when he was 19. Baldness was one reason why critics and possibly Gene Roddenberry did not think that Stewart could manage the role. With a generation growing up watching the hirsute Captain James T. Kirk, Stewart looked too out of place. This visual quirk of not looking like how the Captain of the Enterprise is supposed to look like wound up endearing him to viewers rather than repelling them. Unlike Captain Kirk’s actor William Shatner, Stewart refused to wear a toupee.
Another quirk was that Picard was French. In the first season, Picard would make sly remarks about how the French were best at everything. But his nationality can be hard to remember at times, considering that Stewart is perhaps the stereotypical Englishman. Picard’s favourite drink is Earl Grey tea (hot), he can quote whole passages from Shakespeare or “Moby Dick” at the drop of a phaser and Stewart had the quintessential English accent taught to him at RADA. Stewart was born in Yorkshire, which has a much more guttural and slurred accent. He learned the accent so well that he completely lost the Yorkshire accent and did not want to put on a fake French accent for the character.
Picard also was far more at ease on alien worlds than he was around children or teenagers. Eventually he overcame these feelings. But perhaps the best scene of this quirk showed in a long shuttle ride he had to take with teenager Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher. While chomping down on sandwiches, Picard describes how he got stabbed in the heart during a bar brawl.
Basic Components: Outright Failures
But the most remarkable aspect of Captain Picard’s character is that even though he screws up, he still manages to go to work the next day and take care of those closest to him. Many people struggling with jobs, illness and family can identify with this. Although Picard has a lot of advantages the average person doesn’t – such as 24th century technology – he still fails in very timeless ways.
Picard did not get along with his only sibling, although they do manage an uneasy sort of truce in “Family.” He fails in many love affairs. He is strongly attracted to Counsellor Troi but keeps his distance as she does not reciprocate the affection. His ideal woman, as his bad luck would have it, is married off to stop a war and the two never meet again (“The Perfect Mate.”)
Due to the tragic deaths of his brother, sister-in-law and only nephew, Picard winds up being the very last Picard in “Star Trek: Generations” (1994.) But he never manages to have children, despite his longings to in the movie and in episodes such as “The Inner Light.” He cannot seem to fathom how to balance a family and a brilliant Starfleet career.
But his biggest failure was being assimilated as a Borg and, against his will, transformed into Locutus. He later laments to his brother in “Family” that “I wasn’t good enough” to stop the Borg from taking over his body. Despite all of Picard’s triumphs, even over the Borg, this one failure (which really isn’t a failure) galls him to the core.
Many viewers have been able to identify with Picard and his greatest failure. Although there was nothing Picard could have done to stop the Borg taking over his body, Picard still felt guilty. We all face our own “Borg”, whether is was being abused as a child, having an illness, being hit by a tornado or one of any number of uncontrollable events. Despite what we are told time and time again that there was nothing that we could to do stop it, we still feel guilty.
Captain Picard is one of the only characters in pop culture that understands these feelings. Because he also has such admirable qualities, it is comforting and sobering to think that even a Picard has such problems.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion.” Larry Nemecek; 2003.
“Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Wess Roberts, PhD and Bill Ross. Pocket; 1996.
All 187 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) and four movies.
The Guardian. “Patrick Stewart: The Legacy of Domestic Violence.” 27 Nov. 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/nov/27/patrick-stewart-domestic-violence
Uncyclopedia, the Content-Free Encyclopedia. “Captain Picard.” http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Patrick_Stewart